If you view any of Shellie Lewis Dambax’s large, hyper-expressive paintings, you might glimpse the deep, inner workings of her mind, her moments of being immersed in a trance-like process of creation, the therapeutic release of physical mark-making. “It’s like being a child again,” says Brevard-based Dambax. “When it felt like nothing was in your way.”
Conflict and turmoil lie just beneath the polite veneer of landscape and figure. Female faces comprise a large part of her work. Although each painting has a given name, they are not portraits. “I am not a portrait artist at all, and don’t have a desire to be,” says Dambax. Rather, each face emerges intuitively as she applies paint. Drips are visible through the layers, sometimes composed of wax, crayon, and other textured materials. Occasionally other faces are visible when the paintings are rotated — if a face becomes too naturalistic, Dambax may start the painting over. The resulting face is often large-eyed, with a serene, wistful look — strong with an ability to cope. “Some people have claimed they look submissive, but I don’t see them that way at all.”
Dambax studied art at College of Charleston, but her practical side dominated for over 19 years. She owned and operated three restaurants with her husband — “although deep down, I knew I was supposed to be doing something else.” They separated two years ago and she spent the entire following year painting, non-stop. Dambax emerged from this period with a solid sense of whom she was, able to reunite with her husband and feel confident in her identity as a painter.
Dambax’s other subject is the landscape. Though stylistically similar with the portrait work, there are significant differences, especially in the conceptual underpinning. Unlike the portraits, rooted in imagination, the landscapes are based on real places that she photographs. She often sketches from her computer screen, where she can zoom in and get a sense of light not immediately apparent from a small print. They are more technical than intuitive; Dambax aims to convey the sense of a geographic location, and hopefully, get an emotional response from the viewer. “People have said to me, ‘Why am I connected to this street? I’ve never been there.'”
Be they either portrait or landscape, Dambax’s canvases are subject to the same physical treatment. They withstand sanding and scraping, even the application of screws, creating tiny details that bring the viewer in close (large canvasses typically keep the viewer at a distance). Works like Jacquelyn feature tiny, repeating, mechanically-bored circular marks, adding visual interest and complementing texture inherent in mixed media and glaze. The glaze is especially evident in her landscapes, such as County Rd. Near the River. The ultra-gloss finish actually drips down along the darkened tree forms, adding a three-dimensional effect. Handwritten words are visible along the ground, showing evidence of the internal conversation between artist and canvas.
Dambax has recently begun a new series of work, a culmination of what she has learned thus far. “I’m actually collaging and sculpting more than I am painting,” she says. The process came about by accident — resin applied to a painting’s surface moved upright before it dried; she began to peel away the “ruined” resin to start over and noticed the leftover, which became a focal point of the new work. Faces and layers of old paintings fuse with scraps like recycled architectural drawings, and are built up to the point where the resin itself becomes a medium. The pieces are not neatly contained within the rectangle of traditional paintings, but are like sculptures, flaking off into irregular shapes. Dambax points to a recent work, almost gleefully; she had torched the edges.
Dambax has some loose plans in the works for upcoming exhibitions later in the summer but her main focus is to explore her new sculptural style of painting. Though the physical weight of this work demands a live audience for full appreciation, the many positive Facebook comments affirm that her fans are appreciating her new direction. Dambax is very active on her Facebook page. “I think if I can attract their eye online,” she says, “they’ll like it even more in person.”